Continued from page 1

Technology makes the process easier. The office can look up information on veterans who were retired on a database. If the veteran was not retired, honorable discharge papers must be shown, she said. If the family has no papers, records still can be found at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. However, a 1973 fire compromised the files, so sometimes a small research job proves trickier than expected, Ms. Tanner said.

Ms. Tanner said her office has been noticeably busier the last five years. Many of the calls come from the grown children of long-retired servicemen ready to go to their final resting place. That doesn’t make the calls from a young widow of an active-duty soldier any easier, Ms. Tanner said.

“You see these families with young kids,” she said. “It is really tragic.”

The interment office was overwhelmingly busy in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, Ms. Tanner said. American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the Pentagon practically in sight of the cemetery. Sixty-four people killed on Sept. 11 are buried at Arlington.

“We tried to help all of them as fast as we could,” Ms. Tanner said. “It was one of the few times we buried on Saturdays.”

While Ms. Tanner reflected on that horrible day, members of the interment staff were perusing a map of the cemetery, marking off where upcoming burials can be scheduled without crossover. The maps mark roads and sections, and highlight available spaces. Unlike private cemeteries, spaces cannot be reserved. Grave assignments are made, without preference to rank, class, gender or race, the day before the burial.

Next year, Arlington is scheduled to go high-tech, eschewing the printed maps for GPS technology that can keep up with the need for space and a landscape that changes daily.

Some predict the grounds will run out of space by 2060. Ms. Tanner said she doesn’t think that will happen, especially since the cemetery is scheduled to take over nearby land eventually.

“We’ve got sections in which there are no burials yet,” she said. “We’re getting a new columbarium. There will be space long after I am gone, even after my grandchildren are gone.”

The workday at Arlington starts with a morning meeting and a computer printout. The printout is the vital daily document at the cemetery. It tells the staff — from grave diggers, to chaplains, to drivers, to the 1,300-member Old Guard — what they need to know about the day’s ceremonies and the preparation for the next day’s.

Each entry on the document has the deceased’s name, rank and next-of-kin contact. It shows where the grave is, how deep it needs to be dug, whether there is already someone (such as a spouse) buried there or who someday will be buried there. It details the deceased’s faith and what kind of honors will be taking place.

“There is a lot of things you have to keep in your head,” said engineer tech Daniel Manning. This morning he is in Section 135, readying a grave. The engineering staff is busy digging graves, lowering grave liners and moving caskets as part of a day’s work among the living.

“In the beginning, you can get a little [creeped out],” Mr. Manning said. “But it’s a job. People have a physical address when living. This is their new address. It is just something that goes on.”

Pfc. Dix’s burial goes off as planned, one of four that hour at various corners of the grounds. A chaplain says a few words. Flags are presented to Pfc. Dix’s parents and sister. A member of the Arlington Ladies — the volunteer corps of women who attend each and every funeral at Arlington “so no solider will be buried alone,” — presents the family with a letter from the secretary of the Army. In the distance, a baby cries and another guard unit files into the columbarium.

The mourners leave the temporary Astroturf area surrounding the casket and return to their line of cars. What they don’t see: Waiting in a truck 100 yards away, respectfully out of sight, is a crew ready to continue the business of dying.

Story Continues →